For Humanity

What better product of Architecture than a smile on the face of a child? 

Following the earthquake that added insult to the injury already consuming the people of Haiti, there came a call from Architecture for Humanity for architects to help. As third responders, our efforts would focus on stabilization first and only later on reconstruction. In my 12 or so trips to Haiti over four and a half years, I watched this process and how our architectural training and use of design added value to the recovery and to the lives of the Haitian people. Answering that call was one of the most profound experiences of my life. 

During its time in Haiti, Architecture for Humanity with its volunteers and in-country staff completed many worthwhile projects. Our work included various new and renovation school programs, several community master plans, urban planning, and construction of Phase One for a new community, medical facilities and clinics, houses, art installations, and other interesting and challenging programs. This story is about one project of which I am particularly proud: the school at Ceverine near Maissade in Haiti’s Central Plateau. Along with our partners Save the Children, Stiller Strong, and Ecofa Construction SA, we were asked to address the problems of an undersized, poorly constructed school with limited resources. This conversation began for me between trips to Haiti with a Skype call while at home in Fort Worth.

Eric Cesal, the AfH in-country director, called to ask that I look at the project and sketch up a few ideas. Located a difficult four-hour drive north of Port au Prince — about 80 miles away — the site was in the center of a remote rural community. The program was simple: add two classrooms for a secondary school, repair the existing building as needed, and add a new kitchen and latrines for an expected student body of 300. I was given the coordinates and found the site on Google Earth. With this information, the project began.

The concept was obvious from the first conversation: use simple forms, local labor, and local materials as much as possible. Supplement that with skilled labor and materials from Port au Prince to create well-ventilated, light-filled education spaces and secure support facilities. Proper detailing and achievable construction would be necessary to ensure this facility was built and would continue to serve the community for years to come.

My next trip to Haiti included a site visit to the school. Upon arrival, we found that conditions were not what we expected. The adjoining landowner had fenced in the site, reducing the area available for new construction, and there was more slope across the site than anticipated, requiring additional retaining walls and steps — yet the program and budget remained the same. Notes, photographs, and estimates of the slope were made, and later, in the office, the design was modified based on this information. The modified design was the basis for the construction documents. 

Eric Cesal and Darren Gill took the design and advanced it in ways that were absolutely unbelievable. We did not just build a school; we created long-distance working relationships — no, friendships — that blended in the most sophisticated ways. Our in-country architects worked with me, both in the U.S. and in Haiti, to complete the construction documents. This process taught me so much about collaboration, about alternative ways to produce architecture, and about construction, that I must say “thank you” to the team for this eye-opening experience. 

Consider this: The office was made up of people who spoke English, those who spoke French, and those who spoke Haitian Creole.  Some spoke two or all of the languages, while many of us spoke only one. We worked in two different measurement systems, metric and imperial units. The language of construction was Haitian Creole with a smattering of French, and all measurements were metric. Communication became critical; learning to talk to each other, to write, and to draw in such a way that we could fully understand what was being communicated was an everyday learning experience.

As designed and constructed, the school is a tight grouping of four buildings opening to a fenced-in court. The original classroom building, mostly reconstructed by this project, is the largest building on site and sets the stage for the arrangement of the other buildings. Adjacent to, and at a right angle to, that building are the new secondary classrooms, with the kitchen and latrine located away from the court in a more private area. This is a simple arrangement to us but, as I learned, one that perfectly reflects the hierarchy of life in Haiti: a gate opening to a very public court followed by the somewhat private yet still public space of the classroom buildings with the private functions hidden away from the public view. The arrangement is inviting and friendly, yet respects the sensibilities of both the occupant and the visitor. 

A major component of every Architecture for Humanity program is the education of the local population, and several aspects of the Ceverine school design allowed us to address this core component of our service. Trained construction workers were taken to the site from Port au Prince to teach local builders proper construction techniques. The trades that were addressed included concrete work, masonry, and carpentry. Additionally, the design allowed an opportunity to use steel frame sisal screens and doors, thereby reintroducing an underutilized Haitian industry to the community: sisal weaving, an almost-lost art that was used to create beautiful yet functional door and window coverings. Local craftsmen were engaged to design, weld, and weave these beautiful and useful elements of the buildings. Our carpenters learned how to build connections that would allow trusses to span a distance without sagging; masons learned how to build walls that would not fail; and all the workers learned the value of light, ventilation, and sound control in a school environment.  

We take so much for granted in the U.S. — clean water at the tap, electricity at the flip of a switch, waste removal that we can’t see and don’t have to think about. It’s not so simple in Haiti. The design included four 500-gallon water tanks, part of a rainwater collection system that provides all of the school’s water. Where power is provided, it comes from a diesel generator and is very limited at best. To address sanitation, a composting toilet block was designed and sized for the population of the school. While this was obviously an improvement, it also created a new job: Waste is managed in place and, after being partially composted, is removed for further processing nearby. The end product is sold and used by local farmers to enhance crop yields.  

My last trip to the site took place shortly after project completion. Darren and I walked a punch list and noted things that could have been done better and things that were done well. From this information, a lesson-learned report was created and shared with everyone working for Architecture for Humanity. We all learn from others’ successes and failures and use that, too; as AfH founder Cameron Sinclair said so often, “Design like you give a damn.” 

While the finished building and the kids’ smiles are lasting images, the process of designing, documenting, and constructing the school changed how I think about those processes. The AfH team included Irish, Germans, English, Haitians, and Americans working in imperial and metric units. Narratives took place in Haitian Creole, French, and English. Of course, all building was completed using local materials and methods. Our self-imposed requirements included meeting California earthquake standards and Caribbean hurricane standards all in the context of Haiti. In all, this has made me not just a better architect, but I hope a better person — one that thinks on a more global scale. I want to express my sincere thanks to Eric Cesal and Darren Gill for their leadership, and to Ryan Behring, Brett Ferguson, Stacey McMahan, and so many others for this life-changing experience.

Tommy Stewart, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.

Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Texas Architect.